Monday, May 11, 2015

Cowboy Dinosaur FBI Detective Procedural

Craig Johnson, Dry Bones: A Walt Longmire Mystery

Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire doesn’t want this cold case. The most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton ever uncovered just appeared on a ranch owned by a cantankerous Cheyenne elder. The fossil could net millions for whoever owns it. But who does—the rancher, the Cheyenne Nation, the federal government? When the elder’s body, half-eaten by wildlife, appears on his own ranch, the question becomes dangerously loaded.

Craig Johnson’s thirteenth Longmire novel hits shelves just ahead of the TV adaptation’s fourth season, forthcoming on Netflix. Johnson uses his adopted Wyoming home to exemplify the collision between modern life and traditional ways. Sheriff Longmire is a contemporary Doc Holliday, classically educated (he translates Latin aloud) but also dedicated to classic attitudes of justice and restitution. Sparsely populated northern Wyoming severely tests Longmire’s values.

This time, Longmire doesn’t want this murder investigation. His daughter, a Philadelphia lawyer, is due home with Walt’s newborn granddaughter. Walt’s best friend, Henry Standing Bear, has arranged a Cheyenne naming ceremony, and Walt’s squeeze Victoria “Vic” Moretti, who doubles as his daughter’s sister-in-law (um…), is showing nesting tendencies. All this is amplified because Walt and Vic suffered significant trauma in the last novel.

Nevertheless, Walt, Vic, and a cast of diverse prairie personalities find themselves thrust into a difficult situation. The massive, newly discovered fossil brings national, and even international, interest into Absaroka County. A newly appointed U.S. Attorney with outsized ambitions dragoons Longmire into his PR campaign, while the FBI and Cheyenne tribal police inject their own desires. Plus, it’s summer in Wyoming, which means storms, including hail large enough to kill.

Craig Johnson
Johnson’s fans have long admired his ability to invent complex characters and inject them into fraught situations. He demonstrates great aplomb in creating dialog among laconic people who dispense words with Protestant thrift: “ How ’bout I go in there and kick his skinny ass like a rented mule?” Having lived in America’s prairie heartland for twenty-three years, I can easily imagine slow-talking people with nose-first accents really talking this way.

But it isn’t just about characters. Unlike conventional mysteries set in close-packed environs like Manhattan or L.A., Wyoming presents entirely distinct challenges based on its sprawling geography. As Longmire stresses early, Absaroka County covers territory larger than New Hampshire, meaning truly determined malefactors can disappear altogether. The land is crisscrossed with mines, caves, shacks, and unmapped canyons untouched in a century.

Danny Lone Elk ruled his ranch with iron discipline. Between his swift punishments and his chronic alcoholism, there aren’t many tears shed among his family upon his death. However, he apparently knew about Jen, the Tyrannosaurus fossil, and hoped for… something. Hard to say what, since evidence of his handshake arrangement with local paleontologists remains mysterious, and as his own only witness, his death scatters all arrangements wildly.

These paleontologists, incidentally, aren’t scientifically detached. One apparently used Danny Lone Elk’s naivete to arrange a lopsided agreement for fossil extraction; the other, a longtime Wyoming character, has strangely friendly arrangements with the family her colleague tried to bilk. When they attempt to ship Jen’s enormous head out of state UPS, Walt finds himself storing sixty-million-year-old rocks in county holding cells.

Gripping though the mystery is, readers will stick with Craig Johnson for his intense sense of place. Longmire’s Wyoming, like most American prairie communities today, straddles the willful dedication to tradition, and modernity’s implacable march. Absaroka County’s people combine native country dwellers and fugitives from urban America’s impersonality. The blend creates a cauldron of ever-evolving ethical collision.

Comparisons with traditional Western literature comes naturally with Johnson’s novels. Besides his central protagonists, his supporting cast of thousands comprises the kind of Blazing Saddles-ish personalities that flourish wherever territory exceeds population. The cowboy-hatted sheriff’s precarious relationship with local Indian officials reflects two cultures’ incompatible claims on the same land and heritage. Absaroka County is truly the frontier.

This, though, isn’t some anomalous period piece. Longmire’s Wyoming exists one connecting flight away from America’s largest cities. Very modern urban tragedies can intrude on Longmire’s time capsule world instantaneously. And his stern commitment to justice has earned Longmire foes among Mexico’s most high-tech drug cartels—foes whose ability to surround and savage him isn’t circumscribed by Western notions of distance and isolation.

Johnson deftly combines character drama with procedural mystery, modern genre fiction with classic Western values. His longtime fans already know this. His thirteenth novel rewards loyal fans by expanding his beloved characters and their continuing backstory. But it also invites first-time readers to jump aboard this charging train.

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